I am happy to be back to my Saturday Evening Post after a month’s hiatus.
A consistent reflection during this past tumultuous month was the question of exactly who is included in the “we” we reference so casually in our public discourse. President Biden, speaking yesterday at a press briefing after viewing the effects of hurricane Ida, declared “We are all in this together.” He was referring to his intention of keeping partisan politics out of the effort to bring relief to the victims of the hurricane disaster, but the fact he would even need to anticipate partisan resistance to a critical relief mission signals the ever present divide that is so endemic throughout our nation. The national “we” feels all too much like a wish than a reality.
The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution that begins “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”* provides the foundation for the idealistic aspiration to the create the cohesive “we” that we have struggled with, ignored, or simply betrayed throughout our history. We are now at a dynamic historical moment of reckoning when racial, economic, and factional divisions have become acute to the point of fraying our efforts to “form a more perfect Union.”
The political and social divisions among us are playing out most visibly in the national media, but the question of who “we” are is even more striking when it is sadly at the local level. Yesterday, for example, I drove past a demonstration here on South Whidbey of some 30 or 40 unmasked people displaying the American flag and excitedly holding a variety of signs opposing masks, inoculation, and any form of government intrusion on their “freedom.” Naive and idealistic as I am at heart, I imagined being able to stop and engage them in some form of conversation. I wanted to tell them about my two local conservative friends who declined vaccination and masks and who now have Covid - and one of them is hospitalized. And I wanted to say the impact of the Covid pandemic isn’t really about individual liberty. It’s about the “we” in our community - our families, friends, neighbors, fellow shoppers, those who are part of our “tribe” and those whose lifestyle and politics may vary sharply from mine. In the name of “we he people” I wanted to plead for them to realize that we all bear responsibility for not spreading the virus and causing people to succumb to a lethal disease. But I seriously wonder if anyone in the roadside crowd would want to listen. I find that so very sad and disturbing.
The question of who “we” are haunts me deeply. My value system is deeply rooted in the Constitutional ideal of a nation respectful of human rights and dignity, a nation that uses just laws to resolve conflict rather than violence. And more importantly, I am inspired by the teachings of Jesus that provide poignant examples of overcoming social divisions and modeling radical inclusion of the “other” that expands the meaning of “we.” The heart of the Gospel includes stories that declare the ill and disfigured, the prostitute, the hated tax collector, even the enemy are to be included in the transformative application of compassion and recognition that all of us have inherent value. Yes, “we" are of different tribes, political and economic persuasions, rich and poor, able and weak, mean and selfish as well as kind and loving, and in the best of the Gospel teaching we are all included in the “we” of Jesus’ vision for the “beloved community."
We are now reckoning with the betrayal of honoring “we the people" and compassionate teaching of our various religious heritage. In the early months of the pandemic, when we learned that everyone - the inclusive global “we” - were all threatened by the same lethal disease, there was a humble acceptance of a new ethical awareness that, indeed, we - the global we - are all in this together. And the idea of a global threat where no one was safe, seemed to send a message of the possibility of a transcendent ethic that could protect and unite us has now sadly devolved into some form of geo-political rankering over sharing the vaccine that has also highlighted the great, global economic disparities of wealth and privilege.
I am holding onto the hope, however, that we can and will reconstitute a more profound sense of “we.” I sincerely believe in the ideal of a Constitutional “we the people” and an ethic of common responsibility and compassion that all manner of conservatives and liberals can use as a guiding reference for mutual security and a binding principle of social cooperation and government.
But my hope hinges largely on the tenuous need to regain a sense of trust. A number of years ago I was asked by the leadership of one of the denominations in Maine to explain how Quakers deal with conflict. I spoke about the Friend’s traditional commitment to patience in decision making so that we could listen to a more profound level of spiritual awareness beyond just expedient resolution of a conflict or problem. I said that the result is that we then build trust and mutual respect because often conflicting perspectives were aired and thus often peacefully and lastingly reconciled. In response to my presentation the convener of the group said that the Quaker approach was admirable, but he felt that the prevailing problem in the churches was that they didn’t really trust each other enough for such a patient process to work.
So I acknowledge that public trust is often difficult to achieve, especially if it has been so blatantly betrayed as it has been during the past presidency. None of us can honestly and simply ask for trust from others. What we can do - each of us - is commit to the intention to develop and expand our own capacity for wary but deep curiosity and respectful listening when we engage “the other" that will create our own bridges to trusting those on the other side of the spectrum of values and beliefs. I am still working on that challenge myself, of course, so I have no pat directions. What I do know is that if we are to preserve a sense of “we,” if we are to ever counter the divisions in our society, it probably needs to start with each of us committed to building and preserving trust in our own circles and lives. President Biden is profoundly correct: whether or not we act like it, truly “we are all in this together,” and to the extent we accept and respect a more inclusive “we” the more likely we can learn to live and survive together.
*"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America …